Older Adults at Increased Risk for Heat Stroke: Know the Warning Signs

Last week, we discussed the dangers of dehydration for older adults and how to make sure your aging loved ones stay well-hydrated this summer. Today, we’re tackling another serious risk for seniors in the hot summer months: heat stroke. Like dehydration, heat stroke is especially dangerous for older adults because of the natural changes that occur as the body ages. Here are some tips to help you prevent heat stroke, identify the warning signs that your elderly loved one may be experiencing heat stroke and what to do to keep them safe.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke falls into a category of conditions called hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature resulting from the body’s inability to regulate its temperature due to internal or external factors, or a combination of both. In hyperthermia, the body absorbs more heat than it dissipates. The opposite of hypothermia, hyperthermia includes heat stroke, heat fatigue and heat syncope, as well as heat cramps and heat exhaustion.

Heat stroke is the most serious of these conditions, and it requires immediate medical attention. Once body temperature reaches 105 degrees Fahrenheit, damage begins to occur to the brain and other organs. Without immediate medical attention, heat stroke may lead to collapse and even death, particularly in the elderly.

Why are the elderly at increased risk of heat stroke?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discuss several contributing factors that may make seniors more susceptible to heat stroke. The elderly often don’t adjust as readily as younger people do to sudden changes in temperature, for instance, and some seniors may have a chronic medical condition that affects the way the body adjusts to heat. Medications can also have an effect on the way the body responds to changes in temperature by impairing the body’s natural ability to regulate its own temperature or inhibiting perspiration.

Warning signs of heat stroke

It’s important for caregivers, adult children of elderly parents, and other loved ones to recognize the warning signs of heat stroke. Elderly adults who collapse are at risk of breaking bones and other injuries that can have devastating consequences, in addition to potential damage to the brain and internal organs resulting from a high body temperature. You should seek immediate medical attention if you notice your aging loved one experiencing any the following symptoms of heat stroke:

  • body temperature of 104 degrees or higher
  • confusion
  • light-headedness or if your loved one reports feeling like she may faint
  • changes in behavior
  • loss of balance or staggering
  • a strong, rapid pulse or a slow, weak pulse
  • dry or flushed skin
  • lack of sweating, despite the heat
  • loss of consciousness or coma

There are also some warning signs of less severe conditions, such as heat exhaustion. Noticing these earlier symptoms and taking appropriate action can prevent heat-related conditions from progressing to heat stroke. Watch for signs such as:

  • dizziness and/or headache
  • excessive thirst
  • nausea
  • muscle spasms or cramps in the limbs or abdomen
  • fatigue
  • lack of coordination
  • cold, clammy skin
  • swelling in the ankles

If you notice any of the above warning signs, take immediate action to help your elderly loved one cool down. Get out of the heat and into an air-conditioned room if possible, have him drink water, rest and change into cooler clothing if necessary. Even if you are able to help your loved one cool down and avoid progression to heat stroke, a visit to a medical professional is a good idea.

How to prevent heat stroke

Check with your loved one’s doctor to find out what medications your elderly loved one is taking that could impact the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. Beta blockers, for example, may cause decreased perspiration—one of the body’s built-in cooling mechanisms. Diuretics increase urine output, which can contribute to dehydration and increase the risk of heat stroke. Lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or drinking alcohol, can also contribute to the risk of heat stroke.

Some factors you cannot control, such as chronic medical conditions. However, you can take steps to ensure that your aging loved one stays safe on hot summer days, such as:

  • ensuring the home is well-ventilated
  • installing air conditioners in windows or whole-house air conditioning systems
  • making sure your loved one drinks plenty of water throughout the day
  • ensuring your loved one gets adequate rest and avoids strenuous activity on humid days
  • watching the heat index and avoiding spending substantial time outdoors on very hot, humid days
  • dressing in loose, cool clothing

Heat stroke and other, less severe heat-related conditions can be quite dangerous for older adults. Taking the appropriate steps to avoid heat stroke and knowing the warning signs so that you can seek prompt medical attention will help your aging loved ones stay safe—and cool—this summer.

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